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Posts Tagged ‘Ontology’

Jan 25 2009

In Swedish the word for reality is verklighet. Etymologically it stems from the German Wirklishkeit, and I was very surprised to learn that it was the mystic Meister Eckhart’s translation of the Latin actualitas that he used to explain Greek philosophy to Dominican nuns around 1300. I think few Scandinavians and Germans suspect that their concept of reality comes from a mystic that while steeped in Christian metaphors had a very Eastern outlook that claimed that above and beyond the God as a Creator there is a formless Godhead from which all arises. The English concept reality comes from the Latin realitas or realis, and interestingly enough according to an online etymological dictionary it was originally, i.e. around 1550, a legal term meaning “fixed property”. That makes sense since it is still reflected in the American usage of real estate. The dictionary also claims that the meaning “real existence” comes from 1647, which suggests that Germans had an idea of reality a good 300 years before the English. It gives no further clues, and online searches for the etymology of reality leaves one none the wiser. I don’t know Latin, but I have gathered realitas is related to res meaning thing, and I believe that it would be quite uncontroversial to say that reality means something like “everything that exists”. Exactly what one thinks exists and what it means for it to exist is what distinguishes entire schools of philosophy.

That the origin of philosophical speculation in German has this mystical affinity of Meister Eckhart helps to explain the vast difference in flavour between Anglo-American philosophy and continental (i.e. German and French) philosophy. Where Anglo-American philosophy has had more of a sober rationalist character where clear logical analysis can lay bare a passive reality out there, continental philosophy has had more of the poet’s sensitivity. Logical positivists tried to distinguish that which exists and is true from that which does not exist, or exists merely in the mind, and is false. The very concept philosophical realism reflects this idea that reality is something external and independent of human thought. The Anglophone authority by default, the Oxford dictionary defines reality as “thing or all that is real and not imagination or fantasy.” It is no coincidence that in mathematics the opposite of real numbers is called imaginary, because in the Anglo-American concept imagination is exactly the realm of the unreal, the false, that which is to be discarded. It is very tempting for a rationalist to deride German idealists and French deconstructivists and dismiss them as either nostalgic romantics or irrational literary critics that cannot tell facts from fiction. While that is probably valid criticism in some cases the defining difference between analytical and continental philosophy does not lie in the degree of logic used. I would argue that the difference is that Anglo-American philosophy is eliminative in nature, while continental philosophy is inclusive, and that this goes back to the difference between reality and Wirklishkeit.


Wirklishkeit stems from Wirkung which means effect, and thus anything that has an effect is real.

Wirklishkeit stems from Wirkung which means effect, and thus anything that has an effect is real. As a consequence all of that which is an opposite of reality is included in Wirklishkeit since all the fictions of the human mind, myths, fairytales, scientific hypothesis, ideologies and religions, all are products of our imagination and have concrete effects and shape the world we live in. From this spring the essential difference in flavour between an eliminatist analytic philosophy and an inclusive synthetic philosophy. This is obviously a simplistic generalisation but I think it is true all the way from Descartes, Kant, the German idealists like Hegel and Schelling and the theosophists, through to Nietzsche, Heidegger, the phenomenologist-existential movement and post-structuralism. One can find as many differences between these schools of thought as similarities of course, but I dare say that they all reject the ontological suicide committed by the empiricists, and they all see science as an effect brought about by something larger than it can itself fully comprehend. They try to return to the subject and understand the ground that makes science possible instead of trying to explain it away. Thoughts are real if for nothing else they have real manifest effects. The human spirit is active and co-creates the world; it is not merely a passive witness trying to achieve a “view from nowhere”.

Oxford dictionary again does not distinguish between actuality and reality, but in order to be etymologically faithful actuality would be a better translation of Wirklishkeit as it would go back to Eckhart’s original translation of actualitas, and imply that which acts.

How to slice reality in three

Plato distinguished between the True, the Good and the Beautiful. This threefold distinction of reality corresponds to Kant’s three critiques, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgement. It is also reflected in our language as It, We and I, and in the distinction between natural science, social science and humanities. It reflects three distinguishable domains of the world, following different rules and different ways of yielding to human understanding. In the realist-empiricist understanding of the world the I-We domains, would strictly speaking be imaginary and unreal. Contrary to the Oxford dictionary actuality would be the very opposite of reality. I cannot say I understand the point of reductionism, but at the very least I’d say it’s somewhat impolite to claim that that for which most people throughout history have lived and died is an unreal fiction.

For a German thinker like Habermas the three domains of reality have three different claims of justification, or three different truth concepts. While claims about the It domain are still true or false, in the domain of We, i.e. in morality and politics, policies and actions are not so much true or false but fair or unfair. Furthermore, in the realm of the subjective I, it is not so much truth we should look for but truthfulness. This is an example of how one must adapt one’s concepts to the world, not try to eliminate the parts of the world that don’t seem to fit into one’s concepts.


There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects.

To respectfully accommodate everything that exists no one has gone further perhaps than the little know Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong whose ontology is wonderfully permissive. For Meinong anything the human mind can think of is an object and must exist in some way. What Anglo-American philosophers would consider reality is but a tiny subset of Meinong’s ontology. This group of objects simply exists in material space-time as they have passed from potential to the real, but another group of objects are still only possibilities, or ideas and fantasies, yet they are somehow. They don’t exist, they subsist. To the subsisting category belong all the dreams that might never come true, the Heissenberg’s uncertainty principle, the lover’s love and the seven virgins in the Muslims paradise. They don’t exist in the strict materialist sense, but they have profound effects on the material world. Not only would Meinong grant being to the entire I-We domain, he would never put imagination as an opposite of reality. Instead he would go to great lengths in trying to distinguish different types of mental objects from each other, he even invited the impossible and inconceivable into his world. “There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects”, an example of this would be a round square. It could not pass into the material space-time domain of reality, and it could not subsist in the cultural-subjective domain because we cannot actually conceive such an object. Yet, it is somehow since we can think about it. For Meinong impossible objects neither exist, nor subsist – they absist. He considered ordinary metaphysics as being ‘prejudiced in favor of the existent’ and he was the first I think to distinguish between different types of non-existent objects in the strictly material sense. My grandmother no longer exists physically, but she does subsist as a memory. If she had never had a grandson I would have been a mere subsistence myself. A grandmother that is born after her grandson is not a real possibility, yet she absists. We live in a twilight zone and Meinong tried to distinguish the different types of shadows. What exists also subsists and absists. What never was possible could not be realised, but it is still meaningful to be able to distinguish between that which was possible but is no longer so, and that which never was and never will be possible. For Meining though even the faintest impossibility has some air of being. Just like Meister Eckhart’s formless Godhead or Advaita Vedanta’s Nirguna Brahman, Meinong’s absistence, unlike existence and subsistence, has no opposite, no negation.

We have come full circle.

Everything absists.